A Progressive Cassandra

A few years back I re-read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which I had first read as a teenager, far too young to appreciate it. Upon re-reading it I realized that it was among the most accurately prescient works of speculative fiction ever written, and when I saw a reference to it online just now I went back to look for the post I was sure I had written at the time, but apparently never got around to writing. I’ll remedy that, briefly, here.

What makes BNW so spectacularly farsighted? Three things, at least:

First, and least, is that it foresaw the enormous expansion of the managerial state, and the reduction of human life to a closely supervised pursuit of pleasure, stripped of all higher purpose or any sense of the transcendent.

Second, it predicted, decades before the mechanism of inheritance was understood, that we would soon achieve technical mastery of genetic engineering.

Most important of all, though, is that it foresaw the radically entropic dissolution, for social and ideological ends, of what is, in human terms, the primary natural category — namely the distinction between male and female. Furthermore, Huxley clearly understood that this could only happen if reproduction was completely decoupled from sexual activity, and indeed from all human experience. Only technology could make this possible.

In this era of entropic postmodernism regarding every aspect of human nature and experience, Huxley’s vision is the only logical way to sustain the march of atomizing, deracinating, and dehumanizing “progress” that has overtaken Western civilization. That Aldous Huxley saw this all so clearly in 1931 is, to put it mildly, remarkable.

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8 Comments

  1. JK says

    Nah Malcolm, all you really needed was a “pert good archivist” which, in this case me being (relatively) free of mind, can hope I’ve landed on the approximately right spot.

    http://malcolmpollack.com/2009/06/06/thats-life-2/

    Posted April 19, 2017 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  2. BaruchK says

    Huxley tangentially hung out with some of the key people who planned and made this world what it is:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloomsbury_Group

    [More here.]

    He was also related to the Fabians via Eton…

    Posted April 19, 2017 at 3:47 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi JK,

    Thanks, but that isn’t it at all.

    Posted April 19, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  4. random observer says

    Yep, the Prophet Aldous looks like winning over Orwell. Even allowing for the modern surveillance state’s existence.

    A decade or so ago Derbyshire did a great piece on BNW. Whether or not Derb would now be as positive as he then was I can’t say. http://www.johnderbyshire.com/Reviews/Considerations/bravenewworld.html

    But he did include this comment: “It is at about this point that the reader of Brave New World finds himself, at least momentarily, wondering just what, exactly, is wrong with life in the World State. Every citizen is happy, safe, and employed in work suitable to his abilities. Whatever need human beings may have for danger and excitement can be satisfied by a shot of Violent Passion Surrogate. Such minor forms of unhappiness as might arise can be banished with a gram of soma. What’s not to like? The philosophical issues here are nontrivial.”

    I suspect if one rewrote it to update all its archaicisms, the vision of BNW would describe progressive goals. And, if born into that world, I would take it for normal myself and enjoy its comforts. So would most of us, I think. We are not made for Nietzschean struggle, we just don’t happen to think our current world fits that mold. Someone from the World State probably would think of even North America or Europe circa 2017 as horrifying dystopias of struggle and strife.

    Just as we think Russia is a ‘hard’ society, or Japan from another perspective, or think the 50s were more demanding, or the 30s, and had more terrifying diseases, and so forth. But the people of those times and places thought it normal.

    I don’t know how to process all that myself. But I surely hope not to see BNW made any more real than it is already unless that society has a job for an old man who wants to weep in the streets openly for all that has been lost.

    But its hard to argue against comfort, safety and pleasure when one is oneself a devotee. Perhaps its just the vanishing sensibility that some of these things lose their savour when omnipresent.

    Your 3 point summation takes a different angle from Derb, but its a good counterpoint. If an angle can be a counterpoint.

    Posted April 19, 2017 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  5. random observer says

    This post is a great followup to some of the points raised in “What can I say?”, by the way. Carries the theme along nicely.

    I’ve come late to the party on your series on religion. I don’t want to take a personal perspective on where the lines are between a religion, a philosophy, and an ideology. I see a lot of crossover and it’s hard to split them sometimes. Especially as many pointed out the existence of non-theistic [arguably] but metaphysical religions, and self-identified non-metaphysical qualities of progressivism.

    I can’t make serious claims for what if anything I am by way of belief anymore. But I get some traction arguing with atheists of the sort who write letters to the papers claiming they can be ‘good’ or ‘law-abiding’ without (a) God, by questioning why obedience to positive law [the product of Power] has to do with goodness, and from where have they derived their definition of what is ‘good’.

    Occasionally followed up by one idiosyncratic view, which is that believing anything at all that cannot be demonstrated by math acting through physics, chemistry or biology is inherently metaphysical and therefore religious, and that this includes the idea of human worth, purpose in life, human rights, and all the individualist and collectivist underpinnings alike of every philosophy like ever.

    And that therefore “Religion” is omnipresent and inescapable and they are practising one with every breath.

    I don’t really think this is a killer app, it may not quite reflect my own beliefs honestly, and it certainly does not address all the distinctions raised here in posts in March. But I have fun with it sometimes.

    Which I realize now is in some small way in the spirit of Georg Lichtenberg, cited yesterday by TheBigHenry.

    Posted April 19, 2017 at 4:36 pm | Permalink
  6. random observer says

    By the by.

    IF anyone here isn’t aware of them, and wants to see some additional sort-or neoreactionary speculations on issues raised here recently about the pace of change, the shape of the future as it applies to identity, and about the emergence and form of new religions, I suggest spandrell at his blog “The bloody shovel” and Giovanni Dannato at “colony of commodus”.

    I think both are younger men and I can’t say their views will be to every taste. But I have found some profit in their stuff and both touch on these questions.

    Spandrell talks often of the emergence of a new religion, referring to progressivism and the need for a more congenial successor to it.

    Dannato talks about the end of the nation state in a framework of tribalism, but not traditional tribes- more like networks of allegiance and identity. He sometimes sounds like a neoreactionary take on the sort of postmodern society foreshadowed in cyberpunk novels of the 80s.

    Anyway. I haven’t the head of steam to draw those thread together any more deeply just now, but presented for your considerations.

    Posted April 19, 2017 at 4:42 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    RO,

    Derb’s point is, of course, nontrivial, and comes pretty close to the persistent “pig satisfied” vs. “Socrates dissatisfied” question.

    Here are some more of my own thoughts on the religion/morality problem, from 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2010 again, 2011, 2013, and 2016.

    These are famously hard problems, but I suppose we can draw at least one certain conclusion here: that I do like to drone on.

    Posted April 19, 2017 at 6:36 pm | Permalink
  8. Jason says

    A nice little essay Mr. Pollack. It made me think of your recent pessimistic thread below, and how I was perhaps wrong in my initial opinion about it. I had wanted to write in response that one shouldn’t necessarily feel so helpless in the face of the seemingly fairly imminent technological revolution that will take place in genetics and pharmacology and biological awareness generally. Western Civ. does provide us a fairly good intellectual toolbox, I thought, to deal with the “posthuman” challenges that we will confront say, two decades from now. The Greek notion of hubris, for example, could be a helpful notion to keep in mind as we venture into this terra incognita, that the past tells us how easy it can be to crash to the earth when we try to reach for the heavens.

    But then I in essence said to myself: who am I really kidding here? Even if we didn’t live in a post-Christian world that lacks in many ways a sense of transcendence- the only effective bulwark, in my opinion, against a postmodern and utilitarian society – I’m skeptical that we could resist. The Brave New World is so damn attractive – how many even devout Jews or Christians or Muslims, when push comes to shove, will not give in to its temptations?

    Again though, the Modern Age is ending, and since man cannot live in a vacuum of atomization as you suggested, it’s a good bet that something like Huxley’s vision will replace it. I guess the interesting question is if any vestige of the West will be able to survive in this new civilization. Hope so.

    Posted April 20, 2017 at 12:01 am | Permalink